by David Baer, December 28, 2014
Text: Matthew 2:13-23
So, Christmas is here! It’s here after weeks of building anticipation. You bought presents. The packages began accumulating under the tree. In our family we had a couple of Advent calendars going, with a new door to open every day up to Christmas Eve, and an Advent wreath with a new candle to light every week. Maybe you were expecting guests, and you had to tidy your house, plan the menu, buy the groceries. Or maybe you had to plan your trip to come here or go someplace else. Then came Christmas Eve. How many of you stayed up until the wee hours on fumbling over parts that came out of boxes labeled “some assembly required”? Stockings were hung by the chimney with care. Milk and cookies, and maybe some carrots for the reindeer, were left by the fireplace. Perhaps your family paused for a picture in matching Christmas pajamas. Everything had to come together.
And then the day came and went. You accomplished something. Christmas came and we wished Jesus a big happy birthday, with all the attendant celebrations. Welcome to the world, baby Jesus! We’ve been waiting for you for weeks, and now the waiting is over and you’re here! We’ve been waiting for the climactic day, the moment when everything changes once and for all. And it came, you came, and everything is good, everything is right, isn’t it?
Some churches I’ve been part of over the years have had a tradition of sinigng the Hallelujah chorus at Christmas time. Don’t get me wrong. I love Handel’s Messiah, and I love the Hallelujah chorus, with its words from the book of Revelation celebrating God’s final victory: “The Lord God omnipotent reigneth! The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ! And he shall reign forever and ever.” These are decisive words, words of triumph, of finality. God has won. The darkness is scattered forever.
But is that what happens at Christmas? Is that what Christmas is about? Is everything right, is everything OK now and forever, just because Jesus showed up, just because he’s here?
Last Sunday we had a Christmas pageant here in the sanctuary, and we witnessed and sang the Christmas story. Christmas pageants have been around for centuries. But in the medieval period, the pageants were a little different from ours. The Shearmen and Tailors’ Pageant that was held on the steps of the cathedral in Coventry, England, told the same Christmas story that we heard last Sunday, that the children helped me tell again at the children’s service on Christmas Eve, but it didn’t end with the wise men showing up to present their gifts. The Coventry pageant included the gospel story that we heard this morning, the story of Jesus’ family’s flight to Egypt and the slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem. For the people of Coventry, the Christmas story was incomplete if it didn’t end with this episode, where the coming of Jesus brings hostility and violence from a powerful ruler, and brings suffering to the innocent. This is not a happy ending, accompanied by soaring Hallelujahs. This ending unfolds to the words of the Coventry Carol: “That woe is me, poor child, for thee / And ever mourn and may / For thy parting neither say nor sing, / ‘Bye bye, lully, lullay.’”
Why? Why did they end their telling of the Christmas story on such a sour note? We can guess. The first accounts of this pageant appear in the late 14th century, when England was recovering from the Black Death, which killed half the population and the Peasants’ Revolt. This was a people who had suffered enough to know that Christmas wasn’t the end of the story, that the baby Jesus’ mission wasn’t yet accomplished at his birth. They knew that their journey toward the fulfillment of God’s promises was a hard and long one. And so they told this story.
There’s no getting around it: it is an awful story! Herod, a terrible king, is afraid of a challenge to his power and wants the baby Jesus dead. God sends warning to his family, and they make a hasty escape. Herod, enraged at being foiled, orders the slaughter of all the infant children around Bethlehem, and Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt, the screams of their neighbors fading behind them. They stay in Egypt until Herod dies, and then they carefully skirt the territory ruled over by Herod’s son and make their way up north to Nazareth.
This is an awful story, and it’s no surprise that it’s fallen out of modern Christmas pageants. But even an awful story, unpleasant to hear, can teach us something about who Jesus is. This is a story framed in words of prophecy. Matthew remembers the words of the prophet Hosea, words spoken in God’s voice: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” This passage, if you go and look at it, compares God to a tenderhearted father who remembers teaching his child to walk, holding him up to his cheek, and having his heart broken when the child goes astray. God’s people were led out of Egypt by a tenderhearted God who will not stop acting as a loving father to them no matter what. Jesus is here to serve, to embody, to do the work of the one he calls Abba, Daddy, whose heart longs for his wayward children.
When it comes to the killing of innocent children, Matthew remembers the words of Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” Jeremiah is known for being a gloomy prophet, but these words come from a part of the book of Jeremiah that offers hope for the future. Immediately after we hear about this loud voice weeping, we hear this: “Thus says the LORD—Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the LORD—they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the LORD your children shall come back to their own country” (Jer. 31:16-17). This is about a God who sees suffering and violence and promises restoration and healing. Jesus is here to comfort those who mourn and give hope to those who are despairing. He is here to show that not even death can separate us from the love of God.
The last prophetic word isn’t one we can locate precisely in the Hebrew Bible: “He will be called a Nazorean.” It might be a play on words: Nazorean or Nazarene means someone from the city of Nazareth, Jesus’ new hometown. But it’s close to “Nazarite,” someone dedicated for service to God. In Jesus’ biography, Matthew sees Jesus’ identity coming together. Jesus has come dedicated to the work of a tenderhearted and loving God who wants to comfort and give hope to a suffering people.
After the London Blitz, when German bombers had devastated the British capital city, and after many early losses, Winston Churchill pointed to a shift in the momentum of the Second World War in a speech to the House of Lords. He said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” And maybe that’s how we ought to see Christmas. It’s no time for singing the Hallelujah chorus. It’s no time for victory celebrations. But something is different. God is here with us in Jesus—there in Bethlehem, there in Egypt, there in Nazareth, and now, here in the church which he makes his body. We’re still struggling against injustice. We still suffer violence, we still have fragmented bodies, minds, and communities. There are still King Herods and wailing mothers in the world. But Jesus is one of us, one with us, in the things we suffer, and in our hope and trust in the future God is bringing.
Thank God for Christmas. Not the end. Not the beginning of the end. But the end of the beginning, in Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with us. Amen.